Originally Published in The San Diego Tribune
Lisa Deaderick - September 26, 2020
Carmen Chavez is an attorney and executive director of Casa Cornelia Law Center, a San Diego nonprofit providing legal services to victims of human and civil rights violations
With a family history of public service and her own personal commitment to making a difference in the world, it’s not much of a surprise that Carmen Chavez would devote her career to the Casa Cornelia Law Center.
The public interest, nonprofit law firm provides free legal services to immigrants and refugees who are eligible for humanitarian relief. Founded in 1992 by two members of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, the organization has been focused on serving victims of human and civil rights violations, as well as educating the public about the impact of immigration law and policy.
“My goal for Casa Cornelia is that we continue to be a beacon of hope for those fleeing violence and seeking safe haven from around the world, that we continue to adapt to the very fast-paced policy shifts we are seeing, and that we continue to engage the community around us in ensuring humanitarian protection for those who need it most,” said Chavez, who started out as an intern, became an attorney specializing in immigration with a focus on humanitarian legal relief.
Chavez, who lives in San Ysidro, has been with Casa Cornelia since 1995 and has served as executive director since 2008. She took some time to discuss the passion she has for her work, along with the organization’s continued work in helping asylum-seekers and victims of crime, and families with children who’ve been separated at the border.
Q: You’ve been with Casa Cornelia for the past 25 years. Why did you want to work with them?
A: I wanted to work with Casa Cornelia because I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to put my law degree to work for the good of people. For me, that meant providing legal services to the vulnerable in our community who do not have access to our justice system. The realities of our San Diego-Tijuana border region and the need for these services influenced me greatly to work with Casa Cornelia.
Q: Your organization offers a number of programs to the immigrant and refugee communities you serve. What can you tell us about these programs?
A: In 2019, our staff and volunteers responded to 2,661 individuals in need from all over the world. We provide legal screenings, consultations and legal representation to those in San Diego who qualify for humanitarian immigration relief with a focus on the following core areas: asylum seekers fleeing persecution or torture in their home countries; children who have been abused or abandoned (all unaccompanied children detained by immigration authorities as well as non-detained children identified in the community); victims of crime, including domestic violence, human trafficking, and other serious crimes. We also deliver pro bono services through our pro bono program and volunteer interpreters and translators programs.
Q: Casa Cornelia has also been very active with cases involving the separation of children from their parents/guardians at the border in 2018 and held at detention centers? Can you talk a bit about the work you’ve been doing on those cases?
A: When adults were charged with illegal entry and entered criminal proceedings, children were deemed to be unaccompanied and therefore were placed in shelters, like the local ones we serve. We saw children in our office as young as 6 years old, as a result of this “zero tolerance” policy shift. Since we also serve adult asylum seekers, we also came into contact with separated parents through a partnership with other local agencies, even before they were placed in immigration detention. We were able to help connect separated children and parents who may be across the country from each other, thanks to our partners and networks. We were also helping these family members with their cases, which are still pending even once reunification happens. One of the major challenges has been language access, as many of these clients do not speak Spanish, but one of the indigenous languages of Central America. Our organization quickly developed an infrastructure to respond to the legal needs of individuals separated from their families at the border in the summer of 2018. Although the Trump administration reversed course on the policy of systematic separation of families at the border, Department of Homeland Security officials may still separate children from parents or caretakers at their discretion. This planning allowed us to assist 43 families since the summer of 2018.
Q: In addition to things like working remotely and shifting to contactless services, when possible, in what other ways has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the ways that your organization does its work?
A: Although most non-essential services and most of the economy have come to a halt, the Customs and Border Protection and the Immigration Customs Enforcement agencies continue to detain and remove individuals and families. Detained asylum seekers find themselves at the mercy of COVID-19, as social distancing is logistically impossible in detention centers. While non-detained immigration court cases have mostly been delayed, some detained cases have continued to proceed. Furthermore, while the government has given limited leeway for affirmative immigration applicants during the pandemic, most deadlines within this program continue to apply.
Victims of domestic violence quarantined with their abusers are exposed to higher levels of emotional and physical abuse, so continuing to provide legal services to this population is critical to the well-being of these households. The wait for a U visa, a special protection for victims of certain crimes who cooperate with law enforcement, can be as long as five to seven years, so many of our clients are waiting, without a work permit, during this difficult economic time in the U.S. Our support services coordinator assists clients with their non-legal needs, including making connections with family members, accessing asylee benefits, and finding critical housing, financial, food, medical and mental health resources. This work is especially critical during the COVID-19 pandemic because many clients have lost jobs and find themselves in dire economic situations.
Q: What’s been rewarding about this work?
A: The most rewarding aspect of this work is seeing transformed lives, one person at a time; persons from all over the world seeking what we all want: freedom and safety. It is also very rewarding to see how our mission is realized through the diligence, intelligence, and forward-thinking of our staff and volunteer leadership all working together to help meet various needs. Every year, I look forward to celebrating our La Mancha Awards to recognize our volunteers who help make this work possible. We’ll be celebrating the awards virtually this year on Oct. 15.
Q: What has it taught you about yourself?
A: It has taught me that one person can make a difference and I can, indeed, be that person.
Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
A: One that gives me perspective and endurance is that human suffering is so profound and expansive, it seems impossible to solve it all, so keep a laser focus on one person, one life at a time. You will have made the difference in their life and, in turn, will have a far-reaching impact, more than you will ever know.
Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?
A: I love being in nature. Feeling the rush of the ocean or the immensity of a forest rejuvenates and grounds me.
Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.
A: There are no limits to all the wonderful activities you can have in San Diego! So fortunate to live here. I do not have just one ideal weekend, but truly enjoy a variety of activities, such as walking along the beach, hiking in our nearby mountains, or enjoying Balboa Park.